A Tarnished Cross: Thoughts from Washington, D.C.


 

Sermon Delivered July 11, 2010

 

As I am sure that all of you who have read this blog know, I was blessed to spend two weeks this summer as a student at Wesley Seminary in Washington. I can’t wait to share some of not only what I learned, but the adventures I had along the way: some small, some huge. I have a couple of sermons brewing around in my noggin…hopefully I will figure out how to make them into something meaningful and solid. I just need to work through this decompression period.

One of my professors said that any trip to Washington is like a trip to another world. I don’t know about that, but Washington is certainly a one of a kind city. Washington is a city, in a city, in a city. No matter how fast or how slow you experience the city, it will wear you out.

Geographically the city is unique. The city sits on 81 square miles in which they squeeze 600,000 people. Now picture this; Keene is 40 square miles, or about half the size, but DC has 24 times the population. It is a densely packed and overwhelmingly busy city.

In addition to its geographic uniqueness, we cannot forget the uniqueness of its climate This entire summer has been hot, even in normally iceberg-ish New Hampshire. Yet, while I was in DC, temperatures rose at one point to 115 degrees. That is beyond hot, that’s Africa hot. That’s Death Valley hot. I made the mistake of taking a break between classes and sitting down on a park bench…and as a result I got burn blisters on my bum. For someone who is known to sweat at fifty degrees, 115 degrees is just not natural. It’s not right.

Beyond its geography and climate, there is something that is even more disturbing; namely the city’s staggering poverty. Washington DC has a poverty that can be seen at every corner. The level of poverty is at epidemic levels within the city and I was stunned at some of the things that I saw.

Each day, classes ended at about 4:00pm. By 4:30 each night, I was on the Metro exploring the city. One of my first explorations of the city took me to the National Mall. I walked from the Washington Monument to the Capital like your average tourist. With 3 million people showing up to the city for July 4th celebrations, there was plenty to see, and plenty of people watching to be had.

After I made it to the steps of the Capital building, I lingered enjoying what seemed so surreal. Here I was sitting at the base of the capital, watching the Air Force Band rehearse, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the center of the world. At the very least, I was at the center of the world’s power.

 

After a Gatorade and a call home, I decided I had enough heat for one afternoon. I pulled out my IPhone to find the closest Metro Station. Thankfully, the phone said there was one about three blocks away. Using my IPhone as a GPS, I headed out, long fully looking forward to my return to AC.

As I made my way to the station, I took a corner and bumped straight into the heart of poverty in DC. There, within 500 yards of the Capital Building, was the John Hay Homeless Center. I took that corner, and found myself amidst a crowd of several hundred homeless people lingering around the center hoping for a bed to sleep and a meal to eat.

I am not naïve enough to believe that Monadnock County is without poverty…But what I saw that afternoon was a different. We are fooling ourselves if we believe that poverty as it exists in DC is the same level of poverty that exists here. It isn’t. In DC it’s staggering.

As I took that corner, there was the homelessness that we all expect; disheveled and dirty men and women with all their worldly belongings in trash bags or shopping carts. That is the poverty that you and I tend to picture in our head when the words “homeless” or “poor” come to mind. In that moment, there was als poverty that was unexpected; Men and women in business attire, waiting in line for their beds too. And it wasn’t just this small corner of the city. There was no street, no park bench, and no section of DC that homelessness was not clearly and painfully evident.

Honestly, I was a little caught off guard by the degree of homelessness, and The crowd outside the John Hay Homeless Center was like an exclamation point to all I had seen in the city up to that point. Taking that corner, and seeing that crowd, I couldn’t help but linger.

I watched from a distance of a few yards, but I couldn’t help but feel a million miles away. This was a moment and an experience, that only due to the Grace of God and economics of my parents, I have never experienced. In that moment Poverty was real, it was ugly, and it was unexpected. As I walked away, I passed a young white man, probably no more than 18 years old. He stood near the end of the line.

He stood there holding the hands of what appeared to be his three siblings, all under the age of 10. Imagine that scene: a boy with an empty stare already at 18, clutching his young brother and sister, and he is silhouetted by the dome of the capital building; the center of one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and power in the world.

Try to imagine, just for a moment. What that young man must have seen already. Can you imagine the pain, hopelessness, and fear that must take control of him every day, and probably approaches crippling levels at night. No one should have to go through that, let alone someone who is little more than a boy. The poverty that I saw there was unexpected, it was ugly, it was unsettling, and in that moment it also revealed something pure and beautiful; the love of a brother clearly visible in the darkest of situations possible.

As I process all I have seen, learned, and experience over those two weeks at Wesley, there was a common thread tying everything together; There is an poverty that permeates everything, and thrives all around us. Sometimes our neighborhoods hide it well,…and other times poverty bursts through the seams and cannot be ignored.

In DC when you talk poverty, the image of the John Hay Homeless Center is what comes to mind. When you think of Chesterfield, NH you think of some of the faces of those who visit our food pantry each week. These stereotypes come quickly and without much thought.

Yet, we should not kid ourselves. There is a poverty that exists all around us that is equally as ugly, but often passed by without notice. There is a poverty that is equally as destructive to families, churches, and our communities as the nameless number of people who sleep on park benches or in street alleys. Sadly, this form of poverty is at just as epidemic levels in the shadow of the White House, as it is in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. The poverty I refer to is a poverty of the heart.

I witnessed that poverty as I took the Amtrak Northeaster from Springfield, Mass to Washington DC. The trip was a solid 8 hours, station to station. About half way through the trip, I noticed a very frail elderly African American woman. I noticed her first, as she made her way from her seat to the food car. Her unsteadiness was made worse by the bumps and jolts of the train, and as she passed I was primed to catch her, when that inevitable fall came. Thankfully that fall never occurred.

A few hours later as we pulled into the station of Philadelphia, I saw her again as she made her way off the train, bag in hand. The exit to the platform was immediately behind my seat. At each station, the conductor would come over the PA inside the cars, and announce the station. In addition, he or she would remind passengers to “mind the gap” or to watch the gap between train and platform. Unfortunately that elderly woman did everything but that. She failed to mind the gap, and fell.

When she fell, she didn’t fall on the platform, but rather she fell between it and the train, and in an instant was wedged in there. As you can imagine, she was scared. We passengers didn’t notice until she let out a primal scream of fear, which shot all of us out of our seats.

This certainly must be a regular occurrence, because instantly the train was shut down and the conductors sprang into action. It took several minutes, two EMTs, and a handful of transit and Amtrak authorities to free the woman, now badly shocked, but relatively uninjured.

As I talk about the poverty I have seen on this great adventure, it was in that moment that I experienced the ultimate and ugliest form of poverty through mind two weeks away. It was expressed by the sharp dressed business woman, who was exiting immediately behind the elderly woman.

As they cautiously and gingerly worked to get the woman out of the gap, they refused to let people off the train. That woman grew increasingly more upset, and more belligerent as she was forced to wait. She was angry, and quite vocal about it, as she waited for the emergency workers to free the woman. Soon she was barking at all involved. She was late, she had plans. Can’t you just let us pass?”, she barked. “This is ridiculous,” was her commentary.

Believe it or not, she eventually grew so frustrated she decided not listen, and actually stepped over the woman…so she could go about her day. As she made her way past the crowd gathered, and began immediately and jovially chatting on her cell phone, my eye caught something. Around her neck was a pretty and rather ornate, cross.

In that moment, I witnessed the harshest, most destructive, most pervasive, and most heart breaking form of poverty; Poverty of the Heart. It’s a poverty that affects each and every community, and organization. It’s a poverty that is the root of most of the problems that we see in our society. It’s a poverty that not only hurts those around us, but stains everyone that comes in contact with it. It’s a poverty that says it’s okay to step over our neighbors, whether they are hurting or in pain, or homeless, or simply struggling to find their way.

 

Maybe we once again need to hear the words of First Corinthians 13:

 

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13&version=NIV

 

 

Our God is a God of Love. Everything else we think we know about God falls second to that. The faith and the cross that we claim demands that we remember, celebrate, and worship that Love. It also calls us to be that love to the world around us. We cannot tarnish the cross we wear, by being those that ignore, or choose to step over. Together we must be different. We must be those that live a life centered on expressing that love. Only then will things change.

As we talk about our faith journeys, or as we talk about the future of our church and its ministries, we need to be sure that everything we do and all that we are is focused on one thing: Being love to a world that has lost it. This, and only this, is the way that the world will become something different, and in this alone, will the world know who we truly are.

 

They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.

 

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